I saw “Reptile,” the new Netflix homicide thriller, at home on a link and decided to watch it with subtitles, since this is the sort of moody cop noir about life in the shadows where there’s a lot of murmuring going on. And I didn’t want to miss a clue. This means, of course, that the subtitles will keep cueing you with descriptives like “sinister music” or “quiet ominous music,” and I couldn’t help but notice that this happened around 50 times. So much quietly sinister ominous music! That’s fair game for the genre, though it’s laid on a bit thick in “Reptile,” and that’s an emblem of the film’s aesthetic, which might be described as understated overstatement.
The murder that kicks things off is disturbing enough to have been committed by a serial killer. Will Grady (Justin Timberlake), a clean-cut but shady real-estate broker in the New England hamlet of Scarborough (lots of trees, enviably big houses), returns to the mostly unfurnished palatial property he’s crashing in with his girlfriend, Summer (Matilda Lutz), only to discover her blood-drenched corpse crumpled on the upstairs white carpeting. As we learn, she’s been stabbed 33 times; there are bite marks on her hands; and one of the stab wounds was so deep that a knife shard was embedded in her bone. There is also a strand of blond hair from a wig.
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This all adds up to: The killer must be one sick f—k, a sensation enhanced by the way that Grant Singer, the first-time director of “Reptile,” draws on the greatest film of the genre, Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (the bite marks, the white carpeting, the blond hair, the quietly sinister ominous music). But in “Reptile,” a movie whose very title implies that we’re watching the story of a venomous maniac, the whole grisly-creepy vibe is itself a red herring.
A hideous murder most certainly took place, but was it a psycho atrocity? A crime of passion committed by someone who knew the victim? Or something else? “Reptile” lays out a buffet of suspects that hint in all directions. The killer could be Will, played by Timberlake with a dyspeptic sneer of anxiety that’s just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. It could be Summer’s ex (Karl Glusman), a skeevy drug dealer she was still sleeping with. Or it could be Eli (Michael Carmen Pitt, cast against type and with a new middle name), the long-greasy-haired weirdo with the Manson Lite stare who keeps popping up, starting at the crime scene the night of the murder. In each case, we scrutinize the suspect with the same thought: “Yep, it could obviously be him. Which is probably why it can’t be him.”
It could also be one of the cops. The central figure, a veteran homicide detective named Tom Nichols, is played by Benicio del Toro, who wears a mustache, a crown of dark hair, and a spiffy leather jacket. Tom operates in his own leisurely zone of deduction and holds his hunches close to the vest, something that del Toro is an ace at. In “Reptile,” the actor speaks volumes just by raising his eyebrows or lowering his voice to a gruff monotone. At moments, we may wonder if he’s the killer (a gambit that’s been done a few times). For Tom has a shady past and a mysterious stab wound on his palm.
Yet as we observe his interaction with his wife, Judy (Alicia Silverstone), who is close enough to him to help him solve cases (Silverstone, in an excellent performance, makes her ingratiating yet tough enough not to flinch), we think: Nope. Then we notice how jealous Tom is of the contractor who’s renovating his kitchen and flirting with Judy; that seems like a red flag. Then Tom sets the guy straight, and we think: Aha, it’s just chivalry. Del Toro plays all of this with a seesaw cunning that keeps the audience agreeably off balance.
Tom’s cop crew is another story. They’re a band of brothers the film portrays vividly, as an ideal of old-school camaraderie, though we start to see cracks in the armor when Wally (Domenick Lombardozzi), the one with the rough edges, talks about the security company he’s starting; he sounds a bit too profit-fixated. And what’s up with the chief of this squad? He’s played by Eric Bogosian as an aging geek who has the demeanor of an accountant and seems like he’s never not hiding something.
On the level of Saturday-night watchability, “Reptile” is a solid notch above “The Little Things,” the 2021 thriller in which Jared Leto played what looked and moved like a serial killer, though the film never quite let you nail that down. “Reptile” tugs you along with a competent and accessible intrigue. Yet as it comes to light that we’re dealing with a conspiracy, the movie seems to forget something: that the sheer gruesomeness of the murder suggested a berserk sadist at work, while the actual explanation for the crime suggests something wholly different. So which is it? “Reptile” comes on as “smart,” but the movie, for all its sinister-ominous-music atmosphere, is opportunistic enough — or maybe just enough of a consumer product — to swallow its own premise, if not its own tail.
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